The Lord's Own Safety Net

Rich Scherber has seen miracles. People walk into a nondescript apartment building in south Minneapolis, he says, with drug habits, violent pasts, all sorts of "life control problems." After a year of hard work and five hours of Bible study a day they come out sober, praising the Lord, and burning to take the word to the streets. It's a vision with a future of its own--the sort of hard-ass, "values-oriented" program that, if government continues its retreat from the poor and desperate at the current pace, is likely to be the only option for many of them.

Scherber is the head of Minnesota Teen Challenge, one branch of a sprawling national organization affiliated with the Assemblies of God church. Its officials have been star witnesses at Congressional hearings; they have met with Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. They've also had some run-ins with the law, being accused in some states of operating treatment centers without a license. But in Minnesota, Scherber says he's had nothing but glowing reviews: Politicians and city officials who've stopped by Teen Challenge are "thrilled to death with what we're doing."

Blow-dried and dressed in a grey suit that matches the color of his mustache, Scherber looks to have little in common with the people who walk into his centers, five of them altogether in a few-square-block area of south-central Minneapolis. But he's been there, he tells a suburban church audience, working up to rapid-fire delivery. "I was a flunky out of grade school, I was a flunky out of high school... I was a drug addict, I was on 15-minute intervals, I went through drug treatment as well. But there was no fire there, there was no hunger." One day, someone from the Jesus People church approached him on the street, and that night he got a machete and cut down his patch of home-grown pot plants.

He went on to graduate from North Central Bible College, then took his ministry to the Iron Range, where jobs were drying up and those who didn't leave needed a place to hope. Eventually he found his way to Minneapolis and Teen Challenge. "Don't think you've got to go to Argentina to win souls for God," he exhorts his audience amid a reluctant chorus of amens. "I tell you, we're in a hellhole right here in America." Big amens now.

The first thing to know about Teen Challenge is that it doesn't actually deal with many teens; most of its clients are men and women over 18. The average age is 24. But it was founded in 1958 by the Rev. David Wilkerson, a young Pennsylvania preacher who felt a calling to go to New York City and minister to teenage gang members. His book, The Cross and the Switchblade, became a best-seller, and from it evolved an organization that has grown to 147 centers with 2,500 beds nationwide, plus another 50 centers abroad. This year they're opening one in Mongolia and working on a "structured regional plan" for the expected growth after a few years' stagnation. "The need is getting bigger," explains Teen Challenge National President Wayne Keylon. "And the federal government is talking about cutbacks, welfare reform; it would put it back on the local communities to create programs and to deal with those problems."

"Those problems" include drug use, violence, and despair. Teen Challenge's literature says chemical dependency is "our main treatment focus," but clients also need help to break from "gangs, prostitution, cults, or satanism"; the program also takes in HIV-positive clients, and there's a full-fledged AIDS ministry under development.

All of these problems, explains Keylon, stem from a "profound unhappiness" caused by bad relationships including the one with God; once clients find religion, they drop "self-sinning and other-sinning" behavior. The idea bears more than superficial kinship to the Alcoholics Anonymous model with its emphasis on a higher power. But if AA is essentially a gentle, do-it-your-way approach, Teen Challenge makes serious demands on body and soul.

Though the Minnesota branch's literature promises that "tours of the facilities are available by appointment," Scherber backed out of a scheduled visit from City Pages twice. He did, however, discuss the program on the phone, alternating between suspicion ("We don't need any turdy publicity") and enthusiasm. "We believe that there is a sin problem with humanity," he explains. "That your problem has a spiritual origin. There is a heavy emphasis on Bible memorization."

There are currently 50 students in Minnesota Teen Challenge, Scherber says: "29 adult males, 14 ladies, and seven teenagers," the latter in a Christian school run out of a nearby church. A list of things to bring for the minimum one-year stay begins with "dress clothes" for church. Would-be residents pay a $100 application fee (the rest of the program is free, though the literature asks residents to turn over 75 percent of any public-assistance payments) and fill out a sheet with questions such as "Have you ever been involved in a homosexual relationship or associated activities? If yes, please explain." Entrants sign a form allowing staff to search their person, their room, and their mail, promising to have communication "with immediate family members only," and to withdraw from drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and coffee beyond a cup a day "cold turkey, aided only by prayer." Finally, they vouch that "I Am Committing Myself To This (1) Year, Deeply Christian Based Program, Without Any Form Of Coercion."  

Once admitted, students typically get up at 6 a.m., spend the morning in Bible study, then work for four hours in the afternoon; in between there's counseling and "relational guidance" as well as recreation. Lights out is at 10:30, and there are "no relationships with the opposite sex other than your spouse." The work ranges from fixing up Teen Challenge buildings and vehicles to volunteering at a nearby nursing home. Scherber says the idea is to get clients started on habits that will help them in the workplace. "The first sin that man committed is disobedience. We learn that every day. If a staff member asks you to do something and you're gonna buck, you're not gonna last in this program. You just surrendered your rights to God. You're gonna fight God, you're not gonna make it."

"Those are the things employers are telling us," echoes Keylon, at the national office. "We need someone to show up on time, with the right attitude and the willingness to work and to learn. One of our philosophies is no work, no eat."

Teen Challenge claims a staggering success rate, and there is some evidence to bear that out. In 1975, a U.S. Department of Health-commissioned study indicated that of 67 mostly Puerto Rican men who gave a urine sample seven years after graduating from Teen Challenge, 70 percent tested clean for heroin, marijuana, and alcohol. And last year, a survey at the University of Tennessee surveyed 25 graduates of the Chattanooga center; 72 percent said they were drug-free.

No similar studies have been done on Minnesota Teen Challenge, but that doesn't keep officials from singing its praises. Wes Skoglund, a DFL state representative from Minneapolis who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, says Scherber and a group of his students came to testify at his committee this spring, and he went to tour the facilities afterwards. "They do for about $20 a day what the state does for $70 a day," he says reverently. And Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson, who visited the Minneapolis center last month, says he's interested in having cops and courts refer clients to it.

But not everyone who's dealt with Teen Challenge is as sanguine. Julie Borlaug first heard about the program in a Bible study class at her church in Eagan; the instructor suggested that church members "go down and touch" the urban destitute. But when she called and mentioned her 16-year AA background, she says she was told she should get on her knees and repent. What followed was a series of phone conversations in which Borlaug says she merely demanded her due--a meeting, a tour, financial accountability from an organization her church donations were supporting. What she found, she says, made her concerned that she'd run into "some sort of a cult" that dealt with vulnerable people without public oversight. Scherber, for his part, has slapped a restraining order on Borlaug and her husband, claiming that their phone calls harassed him and his employees. "We have all the licenses we need," he insists. "I don't know where this woman is coming from."

As it turns out, both were partially right. Teen Challenge isn't licensed by the state or the city, and it's possible it doesn't need to be. Under Minnesota law, you can operate all sorts of "group residential facilities" without regulation, as long as you're not claiming to be providing health care services such as professional drug treatment. And while state law requires nonprofits to give the public financial information including tax returns, religious organizations are exempt.

Teen Challenge's only vulnerable point may be the fact that it recently began working with adolescents. Scherber says officials have told him he doesn't need a license for that. But following Borlaug's inquiries, the state Department of Human Services has begun looking into the matter: "We will probably want to talk to them," says Julie Reger, manager of the department's licensing division.

This is not a trivial point. In September, officials from the Teen Challenge center in San Antonio, Texas, told the U.S. Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee that they would have to become licensed or stop operating as a treatment center; under Texas rules, treatment programs must employ licensed counselors and social workers. But those people's methods, the group's director told Congress, "would be fundamentally at odds with our faith-based approach [which views] drug and alcohol abuse as a sin symptomatic of a life lived out-of-touch with the teachings of Jesus Christ." San Antonio Teen Challenge is now taking the state to court with representation from the conservative legal defense fund Institute for Justice.  

No matter what the outcome of that lawsuit, the movement behind Teen Challenge is not about to slow down. Christian rehab programs of all descriptions have been proliferating in the past few years; they even have their own 12-step program, called Turning Point. And they're getting good PR, serving as backdrop for up-with-values-down-with-welfare press conferences. Earlier this year, House Speaker Newt Gingrich held a press conference with a group called Victory Fellowship in San Antonio. George Bush praised Teen Challenge while he was President. And U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) agreed last year to serve as co-chairman of Teen Challenge National's capital campaign to build a $3 million national training center in Springfield, Missouri.

At a time when most nonprofits struggle for funding, money is flowing to Teen Challenge. The Minnesota program's 1994 annual report lists some 1,000 donors, including hundreds of churches from Aitkin to Zumbrota, who contributed almost $410,000 in all. Of that, the group spent $262,000 on operations, including $70,000 on salaries for 21 staffers, and sank some of the rest into buying property. At the end of only its fourth year, its equity was worth $550,000, including more than $100,000 in cash.

"Our biggest problem right now is not having enough room," Scherber says. "We get 40, 50 calls a day for help. We could have 20 homes. And we only cater to those who are serious about getting their life in order." For the others--those whose idea of a new life doesn't include charismatic worship, or who simply can't get in (the program won't take the mentally ill or illiterate, for example)--there may still be hope: Teen Challenge's brochures offer a convenient form you can clip and send to have staff and students pray for anyone you named.

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